Monday, March 29, 2010

Muslim quota set to open Pandora’s box (March 28, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In giving the go-ahead to the Andhra Pradesh Government to proceed with its proposed four per cent reservations for ‘backward’ Muslims, the Supreme Court has, perhaps unwittingly, triggered a social upheaval whose consequences may prove to be far-reaching and not entirely beneficial to India. True, the entire issue of religion-based reservations that unsettles the 1950 consensus will be adjudicated by a full Constitution bench of the apex court. However, since it may be some time before the court settles the issue, the Andhra Pradesh clearance is certain to become the basis of a new reservations epidemic.

The stage for a new bout of social engineering has already been set. The Ranganath Mishra Commission report favouring 10 per cent reservation for Muslims and an additional quota for Dalit Christians has already become the focus of a Congress that is looking for ways to offset the fierce Muslim hostility to the Women’s Reservation Bill. Cynical strategists of the party have calculated that the emerging solidarity of the backward castes and Muslims can be disrupted by extracting a Muslim quota from the already existing OBC share. In short, since OBCs in North India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have not shown any inclination to support the Congress since 1967, the best electoral strategy lies in tempting Muslim voters with the lure of reservations. In South India, the consolidation of Dalit Christian and Muslim votes behind the Congress will be additionally beneficial.

That implementation of the Ranganath Mishra report was not an article of faith for the Congress. Indeed, till the Women’s Reservation Bill unexpectedly threw up a new alignment of forces, the Congress was entirely willing to keep the issue on the backburner. Its hesitation was based on the belief that Muslim quotas would give the BJP a new lease of life and solidify its upper-caste support. The Congress felt that in the normal course the BJP hold over the upper and intermediate castes would slip, particularly if the Congress showed signs of resurgence.

It is interesting that the fear of the BJP was not shared by many Muslim organisations. They calculated that an internally-divided BJP was no longer in a position to whip up a Hindu backlash and that the Congress should be pressured to concede the principle of religion-based reservations. After the Women’s Reservation Bill and the Andhra Pradesh judgement, the Muslim organisations are certain to step up the pressure on the UPA, believing it to be more vulnerable than ever before. As for the BJP, the Muslim groups don’t appear to have revised their earlier assessment of long-term decline.

What emerges from this convoluted game of manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres is a distinctly unappetising picture of India. The politics of entitlements which the UPA believes was the main factor behind its victory in May 2009 has gone completely berserk. If the Women’s Reservation Bill formalised an uneven gender-based faultline, the Ranganath Mishra Report will further compartmentalise the country into religious blocs — a situation we have not experienced since the 1950 Constitution put an end to communal electorates and other religion-based quotas.

The Constituent Assembly believed it was the institutionalisation of religious differences that was responsible for Partition and it was determined to never repeat the process. In a forthright speech opposing separate Muslim seats, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel told the remaining Muslim League members of the Constituent Assembly on August 28, 1947 to ‘forget the past’: “You have got what you wanted. You have got a separate state and remember, you are the people who were responsible for it, and not those who remain in Pakistan…You got the Partition and now again you tell me and ask me to say for the purpose of securing the affection of the younger brother that I must agree to the same thing again, to divide the country again in the divided part. For God’s sake understand that we have also got some sense…”

The unequivocal determination that was evident in the leadership of the Congress in August 1947 to not yield to sectarian pressure has wilted. The reason is not some sudden discovery of entitlements; it is far more basic: there is a solid Muslim vote bank capable of making a difference in anything between 75 and 120 Lok Sabha constituencies but there is no corresponding organised force to offset it. The day such a countervailing force emerges, the Congress will be far more circumspect bowing to sectarian pressure. In 1947, the Congress was a self-assured party and aware of its formidable electoral clout; in 2010 the Congress is merely a first among equals and unsure of a loyal vote that will endure.

This, in a sense, is the real tragedy of today’s India. The political fragmentation of the country has meant that a determined, well-organised minority is in a position to extract its pound of flesh, even if that involves turning the Constitution upside down. If the UPA chooses to travel down the road recommended by the Ranganath Mishra Report, it would be sending an alarming message to the whole country. It would, in effect, be telling voters that sectarian politics cannot be fought with normal politics but by a counter-mobilisation based on a real or imagined religious identity.

In 2009, many middle class voters rejected shrill politics and voted for what they considered a sober, moderate, modernist approach. If the Congress responds to this trust by resurrecting ghosts from an unfortunate past and bolstering religious faultlines, it will be mocking the verdict. Never mind nurturing a modern Indian identity, the ruling party will be telling us to be Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Some have heeded the advice. What if others follow suit? Or is it the belief that Hindu unity is an oxymoron?

Sunday Pioneer, March 28, 2010

Gandhi, the only visionary among many patriots (March 28, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

March 23 was the 69th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. Like most sarkari occasions, the commemoration was characteristically tokenistic and would have remained confined to telecasts of “Rang de Basanti” and “Legend of Bhagat Singh” had it not been for two contrived controversies. First, there was a protest by Leftists over an official ad showing Bhagat Singh with a turban rather than his hallmark trilby; and, second, a legal notice was sent to actress Preity Zinta for allegedly hurting “sentiments of the people” by depicting the freedom fighter in a Kings XI Punjab poster.

The great Indian penchant for tamasha has not spared its hero worship. The various commemorations of freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad and Subhas Chandra Bose is invariably followed by complaints that ‘official’ India has been woefully selective in projecting the freedom movement. Soap-box orators have even hinted at a ‘conspiracy’ to reduce India’s recent past to a family history.

Suggestions of a conspiracy may be hyperbolic but there is a basis for the perception that the grand narrative of the national movement doesn’t accord due recognition to the little struggles that either complemented the Congress’ battles or followed an entirely different course. Textbook history, which aims at turning the past into a manageable package, cannot accommodate the different strands and many loose ends. In the quest for simplicity and homogeneity, rich complexity is a casualty.

That Bhagat Singh and many others have been downsized by capsuled history is undeniable. However, there is a rash temptation by many, not least those who accept celluloid and comic book versions of the past as the hidden reality, to suggest that it was the revolutionary nationalists rather than the Mahatma and his followers who really brought about Independence. This was certainly the theme of many 140-syllable interventions on Twitter just days ago. Many tweets argued that nonviolence prompted a compromise with the British Raj and prevented India from disinheriting the entire colonial legacy.

Youthful impetuosity has invariably been at odds with the ethical quirkiness of Gandhi. As impressionable undergraduates, many of us internalized the British Stalinist R P Dutt’s catchy assessment of Gandhi as “mascot of the bourgeoisie”, “that general of unbroken disasters” and the “Jonah of Revolution”. The Mahatma’s abrupt withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura, his initial prevarication over Purna Swaraj, his settlement with Lord Irwin, his unequivocal disavowal of “Bhagat Singh worship” and his spiteful campaign against Subhas Bose in 1939 were held out as examples of Gandhi’s unwillingness to release the full tide of anti-imperialist passion. The likes of Bhagat Singh with his fervent commitment to socialism were never similarly inhibited.

Rubbishing the Mahatma has become an unofficial national pastime. Militant Hindus charge him with betraying Hindu interests and facilitating Partition; Muslim separatists always perceived him as a wily Bania; radical Marxists see him as an upholder of the status quo; and a new breed of Dalit activists accuse him of social condescension towards the community. Compared to his passionate critics, the Mahatma’s defence seems piteously proforma. No eyebrows are even raised at his transformation into an icon for selling fountain pens and tabloid newspapers. The few remaining Gandhians have painted themselves into a faddist corner, obsessed with temperance, vegetarianism and naturopathy.

Gandhi is a victim of India’s impatience with historical rigour. It is casually assumed that India was forever ready for a grand anti-colonial explosion and that Gandhi used his moral standing to derail the process. It’s a romantic proposition which, unfortunately, cannot be historically sustained.

First, it was not until the late-1930s that self-rule became an accepted goal for all Indians. This realization was itself the culmination of the many campaigns waged by Gandhi since 1918. Bhagat Singh was a fierce patriot but his belief that a few exemplary acts of violent protests would trigger a revolution was wildly optimistic, if not naïve. The young Bengalis who raided the armoury in Chittagong in 1930 shouting, ironically, “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” made a similar miscalculation. Their spark awed India but it didn’t light a prairie fire.

Gandhi realized better than many of his colleagues that the biggest impediment to India’s self-awakening was mass passivity, even fatalism. Unlike the revolutionaries, he shied away from grand proclamations and focused on creating awareness. He knew the human costs of armed liberation struggle and consciously chose the path of a moral struggle using India’s greatest strength — its sheer numbers. He turned adversity into advantage and spared India the bitterness and inhumanity of China’s revolutionary violence. Gandhi bequeathed to independent India a stable society, not one devastated by civil war.

There were many patriots in the freedom movement but Gandhi was perhaps the only visionary. He doesn’t deserve to be mocked.


Sunday Times of India, March 28, 2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Not the next Gandhi (March 22, 2010)

Varun Gandhi's rise and Hindu nationalism

By Swapan Dasgupta

When India's opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, announced the 37 members of its new organizational team earlier this month the spotlight immediately fell on one man: Varun Gandhi, the 30-year-old grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had been appointed as one of the BJP's 15 secretaries. Indian media feverishly speculated that the BJP was pitting Varun Gandhi against his 39-year-old cousin Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the ruling Congress Party.

The thrill of a possible Gandhi versus Gandhi dogfight is understandable. Despite pious invocations of republicanism, Indian voters are besotted by the glamor of dynastic politics. And within the cluster of democratic dynasties jostling for people's affections, the Nehru-Gandhis are unquestionably number one.

Unfortunately for Varun Gandhi, a first-term MP who courted notoriety for his anti-Muslim statements during his 2009 election campaign, his desire to emerge as the alternative, pro-Hindu Gandhi isn't fully shared within the BJP. Since 2005, Varun Gandhi has lobbied the BJP leadership to be appointed general secretary, an exalted position just below the president in the party hierarchy. It would have put him on par with Rahul Gandhi, who too is a general secretary of the Congress Party. Now, five years later, the BJP has given Varun Gandhi a measure of organizational responsibility but not the position of authority he sought.

Varun Gandhi's biggest promoters are some of the older leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu volunteer organization that sees itself as the BJP's ideological fountainhead. He appears to have charmed many of these reclusive bachelors with his earnestness, preying on their sublimated awe of the Gandhis. His apparent commitment to India's Hindu regeneration has endeared him to the RSS, which sees Hindutva (loosely translated as "Hindu-ness") as the way forward.

This February, at a public meeting in the small town of Shikarpur, Varun Gandhi made a tangential criticism of the BJP's focus on bread and butter issues. "Price rise is an issue alright," he said, "but we should not forget what our party was formed for. We should not compromise on our self-respect. If we don't fight for our self-respect, the Ganga (the sacred river of Hindus), Gau-Mata (the mother cow), our temples and the youth, then everything else will fall apart." Coming from a Gandhi, the RSS loved it.

Varun Gandhi's second source of strength comes from the Hindu disquiet in localities confronted by growing Muslim assertiveness. His muscular, come-on-if-you-dare approach earned him a short stint in prison during the 2009 election campaign for an anti-Muslim speech. (Varun Gandhi says his remarks on Muslims were distorted, and the matter is currently still before the courts.) However that same campaign won him a very handsome majority in his constituency of Pilibhit, in Uttar Pradesh. Varun Gandhi's alleged threat to decapitate the hands of those who molested Hindu women shocked liberal India and even derailed his party's campaign strategy nationally. But in the process he endeared himself to angry Hindus smarting at the BJP's shift away from militant Hindutva.

Since his election to Parliament, Varun Gandhi has kept below the radar, focusing on humdrum constituency work. Yet he hasn't lost sight of his supporters, including large numbers of angry youth who are attracted by his machismo. In the same speech at Shikarpur, he held out a menacing promise: "I will ensure that no cow slaughter takes place here and if you hear of any such case, you can call me any time and I will be there. We will get our hands cut off but won't let any cow be slaughtered."

The political styles of Varun and Rahul Gandhi are as sharply different as the approaches of their respective fathers. Varun's father Sanjay Gandhi, who died in a plane crash in 1980, was brash, confrontational and intuitively political. Rahul's father Rajiv Gandhi was courteous, somewhat self-effacing and largely nonpolitical. Today, Varun has emerged as an aloof demagogue while Rahul is still unwilling to take forthright stands on issues. Varun's rhetoric is decisively political, whereas Rahul's appeal still rests on nebulous concepts like youth power.

The biggest difference is their target audience. It is clear that Varun sees a benefit in endearing himself to Indians who nurture a strong sense of grievance. Rahul, on the other hand, is tapping into the aspirational and modernist impulses of Indian youth.

Backed by the full weight of his party, Rahul has a head start over his cousin, who is still viewed warily by the BJP. But Varun will try to use his recent elevation to position himself as an alternative. India has a lot riding on the results of this family drama.


Wall Street Journal (Asia), March 22, 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

To protect Headley, did US let 26/11 happen? (March 21, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

During the 2008 US presidential election there was a belief in New Delhi that a Barack Obama presidency would trigger the re-calibration of Indo-American relations. Translated into English, it implied concern that the new guy wouldn’t accord the same priority to Indian concerns as President George W Bush did. At that time we were assured by star-struck Indian reporters in Washington, DC, that this was poppycock and a function of the deranged Islamophobia of the Dick Cheney Fan Club. Obama, we were informed, saw Hanuman as his lucky mascot. The more sober interlocutors informed us that the Cold War was over, that India was no longer a hyphenated link with Pakistan and that the relationship was on auto-pilot.

It’s now 14 months since Obama assumed office and the special relationship forged by Bush shows distinct signs of wear and tear. I may be guilty of only a minor exaggeration in suggesting that the middle class euphoria that propelled the India-US nuclear accord (and played a role in the UPA’s undeserved re-election last May) has dissipated, if not disappeared. It has been replaced by a growing surge of anti-Americanism, not very dissimilar to the one being witnessed in Israel, another country where a strategic partnership was allegedly etched in stone.

As opposed to the civilisational anti-Americanism that binds the Marxist to the mullah, this wariness of Uncle Sam is entirely political and centred on the belief that the US doesn’t give a toss for Indian sensitivities. Worse, it has got entangled with the feeling that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is more concerned with obliging the US than doing what is right for India.

This new surge of anti-Americanism may not be adequately reflected in the mainstream media where editors and diplomatic correspondents are curiously circumspect in questioning US motives, but it is real and predates the kerfuffle over the alleged cover-up in the David Coleman Headley case.

The doubts over the Obama Administration’s bona fides are strongest in India’s ‘strategic community’, the charmed circle of diplomats, spooks, security experts and interested politicians. The Headley case has suggested a grey zone of complicity between US Intelligence and its asset who may have turned into a double agent. It is, after all, scarcely conceivable that Headley could have undergone five spells of training in a Lashkar-e-Tayyeba camp, from late-2005 to October 2009, without being on the radar of US counter-terrorism. Circumstantial evidence points to Headley undertaking his jihadi activities with the knowledge, and possibly consent, of US authorities. Till much after the Mumbai attacks, Headley wasn’t regarded as a rogue agent.

In 1940, Winston Churchill had advance warning that the Luftwaffe was planning a massive raid on Coventry. He wilfully shied away from ordering the RAF to repel the bombers because he didn't want to let on to the Germans that the British had cracked one of their most secure codes. Likewise, there is a theory that the US didn’t share its prior knowledge of the 26/11 attack because it wanted its asset to gain the full trust of the LeT leadership and be privy to information of future conspiracies.

If true, the implication is quite chilling. It suggests that a section of US Intelligence chose to sit on specific information of the Mumbai attacks because the target was India and its principal objective is to safeguard America and its citizens. In other words, Indian lives are always at a discount compared to American lives — a charming message in the context of the sharply discounted liability ceiling in the proposed Nuclear Liability Bill. Of course, six US citizens also died in the Mumbai attacks and, maybe, this proved to be Headley’s undoing.

There are many questions that Indian investigators have for Headley when the US prison authorities grant access to him — curiously, they have already given the Danish police access to him. However, there are an equal number of questions that India must ask the US authorities. The most important of these is a blunt query: Did you wilfully allow the massacre of 160 innocents in pursuance of a game that lacks a winning strategy?

The US can, of course, retort that it did warn India of maritime attacks. Indeed it did and this is a lapse that will haunt India’s counter-terrorism establishment. Yet, there is a difference between general warnings and ‘actionable intelligence’. Did the US deny India ‘actionable intelligence’ which it had? If so, the implications are grave.

In July 2008, the US had ‘actionable intelligence’ about the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul which killed 58 people. Rather than provide it to the Indian agencies in real time, it chose to route it through the Afghan authorities. The delay was callous.

If the US strategy lies in identifying the masterminds of terror and identifying the complete network, we can perhaps explain the deaths in Mumbai — just as Churchill could explain the destruction of Coventry to himself. Headley’s testimony is categorical on one count: The epicentre of terrorism is located in Pakistan. Headley has also removed all ambiguity over the LeT’s involvement.

What does the US propose to do with this information? So far it plans to outsource Afghanistan to Pakistan.

What Headley has so far left unsaid are two things. First, the identities of LeT terrorists, who are referred to as A, B, C and D. And, second, whether he provided his US handlers a full account of his jihadi activities at each stage.

If India had full access to Headley and the right to both extradite and waterboard him, he may have sung out of fear. In the light of his plea bargain and the knowledge that the extent of his punishment depends on following US orders, the chances of the horrible truth emerging in the natural course is zero. Unless, we too demonstrate that the lives of Indians matters to India.

Sunday Pioneer, March 21, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Not the Westminster way (March 19, 2010)

One danger is that women’s issues will become ghetto concerns

By Swapan Dasgupta

“We Englishman are very proud of our Constitution, Sir. It was bestowed upon us by providence. No other country is so favoured as This Country.”

“And other countries,” said the foreign gentleman, “They do how?”

“They do, Sir,” returned Mr Podsnap gravely shaking his head, “they do —I am sorry to be obliged to say it — as they do.”

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend

Last week, the Rajya Sabha cleared the first hurdle in the path of a Constitution amendment bill to reserve one-third of directly-elected seats in legislatures for women. It was, as its supporters rightly boasted, a profoundly ‘revolutionary’ measure that, if it manages to negotiate the remaining hurdles, will allow India to look Rwanda and Angola in the eye and cock a snook at the patriarchal Anglosphere. What is more, as joyous pro-reservationists have pointed out, the bill was passed after a four-hour ‘debate’ — a curious name for the grand proclamations that party leaders recorded for the history books.

We are, it is said, “like this only” and grateful for small mercies such as four hours of speeches on a proposal that will change the persona of representative politics and further curtail the principle of free choice — the existing ‘reserved’ seats deny absolute free choice in nearly one-fifth of Lok Sabha constituencies. Considering that the government gave less than a week’s notice to the Rajya Sabha, was willing to rush through the bill without even the pretence of deliberations and, if Mamata Banerjee is to be believed, didn’t even bother consulting all the coalition partners, it was less of a debate and more akin to the proceedings of a kangaroo court. The insidious three-line whip and the threat of disqualification ensured that the outcome was settled even before the bill was circulated in Parliament.

The choppy passage of the Constitution amendment through the Rajya Sabha personified India’s cavalier approach to political decision-making. That the proposal was conceived by the ramshackle United Front government in 1996, subsequently endorsed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and included in the manifestos of the main parties doesn’t distract from this harsh indictment. The undeniable fact is that there was insufficient public debate on the bill and its far-reaching implications. Grand assertions from the high table — something Jawaharlal Nehru bequeathed to the country — don’t make for either informed judgment or a national consensus. No wonder back-bench members of parliament feel resentful and short-changed. And it is entirely possible that the cumulative impact of different grievances may derail the bill in the Lok Sabha.

At the risk of echoing Mr Podsnap’s pompous assertion of English superiority, it is worth comparing last week’s events with the path of the legislation that outlawed fox hunting in Britain. To the uninitiated, fox hunting was as central to English country life as, say, football and the pub are to urban Britain. The proposal to outlaw it hit at the very heart of country life in England. Yet, since hunting was also inextricably associated with privilege, the Labour Party manifesto of 1997 promised “a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned by legislation”. For New Labour, which had wisely turned its back on ‘class struggle’ issues, the crusade against fox hunting was a politically inexpensive way of kicking Tory butts and placating its own loyal army of the mean minded.

The seven years it took for manifesto commitment to be translated into the Hunting Act saw feverish courtship of the ‘free vote’ by both sides. There were countless hours of parliamentary, public and media debates, petitions, lobbying of MPs and the matter even reached the courts. The Countryside Alliance even organized a huge demonstration in London in 2004, a rare occasion when Labradors comprised a significant proportion of the marchers. Despite some dogged resistance by the House of Lords, the pro-ban lobby finally prevailed. Yet no side could really say that the legislation was passed without a full and exhaustive application of mind by MPs. A comparison between fox hunting and women’s reservation in Parliament may seem fatuous and, indeed, offensive. However, it’s not the subject of disputes or the passion generated by them, but the political process that bears measuring against the yardstick of democratic ideals.

First, the inclusion of a proposal in a manifesto doesn’t imply its automatic acceptance or rejection by voters. Women’s reservation was a tucked-away feature of the manifestos. It wasn’t even an incidental theme of the general election campaign and I don’t recall any leader of consequence speaking about the measure in their campaign rallies. The proposal didn’t shape voting preferences even nominally. It is also worth noting that even the decision to bring the bill to the Rajya Sabha wasn’t accompanied by the usual ‘busloads of arguments’.

Secondly, in matters concerning a way of life and the very character of the political system, as opposed to a money bill or a confidence motion, a free vote is desirable. A private member’s bill to this effect proposed by the Congress MP, Manish Tiwari, has been introduced in the Lok Sabha. Since majority opinion is the aggregate of local sentiment, there is a compelling need to factor in diversity. A sense of the ‘common good’ can come about after messy consultation and fractious debate. A parliamentary fatwa may enhance women’s representation; it won’t serve the cause of women’s empowerment. Indeed, there is a real danger that women’s issues may become ghetto concerns, unworthy of consideration by the whole society.

Finally, a legislation of this magnitude must be accompanied by robust debate that filters down to the grassroots. The last occasion there was even a flutter of sorts on women’s reservation was in 1996. Until the kerfuffle of last week, there was silence for 14 years. And even last week’s discussions, laced with dollops of correctness, were confined to NGOs, women activists and the editorial classes.

Yet, there are other voices too. Some of them may be crass, unenlightened and rarefied, but they too need to be heard. The very process of engagement and consultation will strengthen democracy immeasurably. It will make any radical step more palatable and less divisive. The introduction of a common civil code for all Indians, for example, has been held up for six decades because of minority misgivings. Indeed, any meaningful debate on this issue has been peremptorily foreclosed not because it will necessarily fail to reflect the national feeling but because the debate itself will reveal fissures in society. The Indian political class, it would seem, is most comfortable with a contrived consensus achieved through diktat; a genuine battle of ideas is invariably shunned. The immortal words of a Gilbert and Sullivan song seems to have struck a chord in India’s parliamentary democracy: “I always voted at my party’s call, /And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

Two decades ago, India moved hesitantly away from the inefficiencies of the command economy. Tragically, it remains wedded to a command democracy whereby the leader directs and followers passively acquiesce. In a counterfeit system, ‘political will’ has come to denote the ability of a leader to impose his/her will on a deeply sceptical party and country. The instrument of this imposition is, predictably, the gagging order of the three-line whip and the threat of disqualification under the 10th Schedule. It’s not, as Mr Podsnap would undoubtedly have reminded us, the Westminster way. But then, it’s not meant to be. Our new ideal is Rwanda.

The Telegraph, March 19, 2010

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Leader's wish can't be party's command (March 14, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

As general secretary of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi has earned the adulation of the chattering classes and beyond for his dogged campaigns on two issues: Greater youth participation in his party and internal democracy. Both issues are unexceptionable and deserve encouragement and support.

The theme of inner-party democracy has surfaced in a big way over the past week in the context of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Both the Congress and the BJP have been gripped by the murmurings of backbench MPs against the iniquities of the proposed Constitution amendment.

Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj went public in naming two Congress whips who have been discreetly campaigning against the measure. They have apparently been encouraging BJP members to unfurl the banner of revolt in their party so as to strengthen the hands of those Congress MPs who believe that the Bill is gratuitous and unnecessary.

It is not necessary to believe that the disquiet in a section of the BJP over the Bill is a devious Congress ploy, just as the counter-accusation that Sushma and her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha are Congress moles. The fact is that despite 16 years of pious proclamations, the manifesto commitments of both parties don’t seem to enjoy all round support of the membership. There is genuine disquiet and this frustration has been compounded by a complete lack of meaningful discussion within the parties.

The issue is one of internal democracy, the very cause that Rahul has so passionately espoused. Yet, it is curious, that there is not even a squeak from the heir apparent on this issue. Internal democracy cannot stop at having elections to the post of secretary to the local units of the party, important as these may be. They have to be complemented by debate and discussion on policy issues too. The principle of democratically-chosen apparatchiks pursuing leadership-dictated politics is, to say the least, odd.

Understandably, it is too much to ask Rahul to lead the move for a no-holds-barred debate within the Congress on women’s reservation. Since the issue is now intimately linked to Sonia Gandhi’s reputation as the Goddess of Social Empowerment, it is unlikely that anyone in the Congress will muster the courage to call for a free vote. The outcome of such a free vote is well known: It is doubtful if even half the Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha will support it. The outcome of a free vote in the BJP would be similar.

Yet, even if Rahul puts the image of his mother above his quest for principled politics, it is about time that greater heed was paid to internal democracy in the two main parties.

The argument that both parties are bound together by their respective ideologies is spurious. There may be a loose set of principles and a history that distinguish the Congress and BJP. But there is no doctrinaire ideology that sets out solutions to all contemporary issues. Politics is all about issues that keep arising periodically and the approaches to which keep changing according to political compulsions.

Those in the BJP who believe that it is imprudent to oppose a seemingly ‘progressive’ legislation that has acceptance within the middle classes have a point. Equally, they are also right in arguing that the BJP cannot be identified with the opposition of caste-based parties and reactionary clerics who seem driven by a desire to keep women insulated from public exposure. Finally, there is also merit in the assertion that the BJP must keep a healthy distance from the hooliganism of a handful of MPs. The dignified approach of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha was appreciated by those who see the party as a natural nationalist alternative to the Congress. To squander away that goodwill by reverting to the mindless bedlam that marked its parliamentary presence between 2004 and 2009 would be self-defeating.

Yet, there are BJP MPs who espouse a regressive social worldview. There are others who see a mini-revolt as their way of settling scores with Sushma and Jaitley. Whether they are also being egged on by small time leaders who believe that it is in their stars to be Prime Minister is also a moot point.

Whatever be the cross-currents both in the BJP and the Congress, it is imperative to introduce a measure of inner-party debate so that there is a degree of coherence. The Women’s Bill, as it stands, may achieve its desired objective of enhancing women’s representation in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. However, given the lack of any genuine enthusiasm for the measure from MPs fearful of being edged out of ‘reserved’ seats, it is very unlikely that it will contribute to women’s empowerment — the ostensible larger objective of the measure.

Social engineering from above has its uses. However, the road to a more harmonious and non-discriminatory society will be built by popular consent, not diktat. The absence of free choice in elections will breed distortions and nurture a resentment that, tragically, will be borne by women. Worse, to salvage the honour of its president, the Congress may have to cut collateral deals with sectarian interests. The ill-conceived Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendation in favour of religious quotas in education and employment may well be the terms of settlement for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill. If that happens, political reservation for minorities is but a small step away.

Two decades after the Raja of Darkness unleashed a bout of caste conflict, the country seems to be readying for another ugly bout of divisiveness. And all because leaders wake up one day with a wish that immediately becomes the party’s command.

Sunday Pioneer, March 14, 2010

Virtual jihadis threaten www (March 14, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

On Sunday evening, i am scheduled to participate in a net debate on an issue that has disturbed me for some time: the marginalization of the Right from the liberal space.

The subject is undeniably abstruse and of interest to either those who perceive themselves on the Right of the political spectrum or those who have nothing better to do on a Sunday evening. Yet, it is not the topic alone that whets my appetite: it’s the novelty of a structured engagement with a bunch of disparate but motivated individuals who have — like the disrupters in the Rajya Sabha — made more noise in cyberspace than their numbers warrant.

It’s not a complaint based on personal experience alone. Conversations with other media professionals, particularly those who have a presence of social networking sites such as Twitter, suggest a growing exasperation with net activists hell bent on swamping the medium with venomous outpourings. It wouldn’t have really mattered if the ‘hweets’ (the name given to hate tweets) had stuck to obsessive political themes — for the past few weeks M F Husain has been the clear favourite and American academic Wendy Doniger a poor second. Unfortunately, it tends to descend into the realms of the personal, particularly if the target is a woman. A woman writer with liberal inclinations and a Muslim name was recently called “slut” for questioning some holy cows of certitude.

It is not that anyone really objects to the Internet Hindus or Internet Islamists having their say, decorously. Tolerating the obsessive is the price of an open society. The US, after all, is dotted with bores who accost the apparent non-believer with a Jesus-loves-you sermon. And, if the white Hare Krishna-types stuck to running vegetarian restaurants rather than prancing through Oxford Street each evening, the authentic Hindus would feel much more relieved. The problem arises when storm-troopers of different faiths vitiate the medium to such an astonishing extent that the normal guy, with no rigid views and no insider information, runs away from political engagement. They are either intimidated or disgusted by the preponderance of weirdos.

When it first arrived on the scene, the www was seen by many as the great liberator and democratic facilitator. It enlarged the reach of the media exponentially and at a nominal cost; it transcended national boundaries; it threatened media monopolies; it bypassed censorship; and it transformed passive readership into interactive engagement. The social networking sites built on this advantage and created alternative communities of the like-minded, ranging from stamp collectors and dog lovers to hypercondriacs. Repressive and totalitarian regimes feared that the net has made it almost impossible to suppress ideas and information.

China is fighting a battle against Google and Iran is hassled by the way Twitter and Facebook are used to bypass the thought police. But these are losing battles of dictatorships. Technology is also becoming a political liberator — a reason why China has also unleashed a parallel campaign to shout down its opponents using the same technology and leveraging its awesome numbers. Likewise, causes that perceive the mainstream media to be needlessly condescending, dismissive or even hostile have alternative channels of reaching out. At one time, every minuscule political group had its own print publications which harried members struggled to sustain. The net has provided them more viable alternatives, and at a fraction of the cost.

The www has triggered a revolution in communications and political discourse. The unevenness of development has meant that many of these opportunities haven’t been fully exploited in India. Those unfamiliar with the English language and those who emotionally identify with a village-centric Bharat (against a globalized India) continue to view the www with wariness, often as an alien intrusion. Among the 55-plus generation in public life too, the internet is at best a clippings library and an alternative dak  system. With the possible exception of Narendra Modi and, of late, L K  Advani, they have failed to grasp its tremendous outreach potential.

The www as a parallel political stage is still evolving in India. It has to be carefully nurtured and made appealing to those who have traditionally shied from either expressing their views or passively voting once every five years — and that too, if it doesn’t clash with a long weekend. If the same strong-arm tactics and the murky shrillness of the outside world are replicated on the net, it will reinforce the conviction that politics is by definition fractious, ugly — and best left to determined activists.

The danger of a democratic instrument being hijacked by virtual jihadis and bajrangis is real. Maybe the libertarianism of the present will soon have to be replaced by an enlightened code of conduct, and technology will enable the users of poison keyboards to be outed and shamed.


Sunday Times of India, March 14, 2010

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Women’s quota Bill restricts democracy (March 7, 2010)

Swapan Dasgupta
Last Friday, Congress MP Manish Tiwari introduced a laudable Private Member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to free Parliament from the tyranny of the party whip. The Bill, which is yet to be debated, proposes to amend the 10th Schedule of the Constitution and make it possible for MPs to exercise free choice in all matters except confidence motions, money Bills and adjournment motions. Most important, the proposed amendment enables MPs to apply their minds and exercise independent judgement in the crucial area of law-making.

Unless I am very mistaken, it is unlikely that this Bill will endear Tiwari to the leadership of the political parties. An unintended consequence of the anti-defection legislation was the transformation of the backbench MP into either voting fodder by the Treasury or a disruptive mob by the Opposition. Whereas the sentiments of backbenchers are crucial to the calculations of party leaders in Westminster, these count for little in India and facilitate a peculiarly autocratic democracy. The draconian nature of anti-defection legislation has marred the vibrancy of Parliament and jeopardised internal democracy within the major political parties.

The fear of MPs sleep-walking their way to national disaster is not an academic one. The next week is certain to be dominated by the Government’s attempt to rush the Women’s Reservation Bill through both Houses of Parliament. The proposed Constitution Amendment reserving one-third of parliamentary and State Assembly seats for women is assured of overwhelming parliamentary endorsement with the Congress, BJP and CPI(M) having issued three-line whips to their MPs. The only opposition is likely to be from three caste-based parties which want a sub-quota for women OBCs. They, however, don’t have the requisite numbers to make any difference and may, at best, fall back on disruption.

Both the supporters and opponents of the Women’s Reservation Bill agree that it is a landmark, perhaps as significant as the introduction of communal electorates by the Government of India Act of 1909 and the Poona Pact of 1932 that reserved seats in the legislature for the “depressed classes”. The proposal, first mooted by the short-lived HD Deve Gowda Government in 1996, has gone through a parliamentary committee and, after 14 years, is ready to be made into law and put into effect with the next general election.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is calculated to change the basic character of representation to the highest law-making bodies in the land. It is a Bill aimed at restricting free choice to meet the imperatives of equity and social engineering. The issue is not so much the right of women to secure adequate representation in Parliament and the State Assemblies — such an unfettered right has been in existence since the Constitution came into being in 1950. Nor is the Bill aimed at making it obligatory for registered political parties to nominate enough women to contest elections. The legislation is centred on compulsion.

In the next general election, it will be compulsory for the voters of selected constituencies (chosen, presumably, by lottery) to select their MP or MLA from a slate of women candidates. In short, a citizen of India will be barred from contesting a particular seat on grounds of gender. Considering that there is already a caste/community-based restriction on individuals from contesting in Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes seats, this legislation will impose an additional restriction on the principle of free choice, the basis of democratic governance. Since the laws of the land are made by Parliament and the State Assemblies, it naturally follows that all enacted legislation will in future suffer from an in-built distortion arising from flawed representation.
It is important to distinguish women’s reservation in the law-making bodies from the existing quotas in municipalities and panchayats. The organs of local Government don’t make laws; they raise local taxes, undertake limited welfare projects, and frame rules and guidelines relating to buildings, roads and sewage disposal. Nor should women’s reservation in the legislatures be equated with affirmative action in educational institutions and the bureaucracy. These are measures aimed at enhancing the quantum of opportunities for livelihood. And the bureaucracy implements and enforces Government programmes; it doesn’t make laws.

In making restricted choice an overriding principle of membership to law-making bodies, the women’s reservation legislation is hitting at the essence of democracy.

There is, undeniably, a strong case for increasing the representation of women to the legislatures. Political parties, even those who have piously issued three-line whips to their MPs, have been insufficiently attentive to the fact that not enough women are given winnable seats. If they had a better track record, they would have had the moral authority to resist compulsion. Yet, the question remains: Must iniquities always be rectified by radical social engineering that has baneful side effects? Or is it necessary to be fanatically committed to the fundamental principles governing democracy?

These are questions that Parliament has to address and in a spirit of openness. These are questions that civil society needs to think about. Unfortunately, parliamentary discussion is certain to be hamstrung by the three-line whip and an oppressive climate of political correctness that has gripped the media. And the pace of legislation is calculated to rule out any meaningful debate in civil society.

In private, many MPs are deeply disturbed by the Bill but they are helpless in the face of instructions from above. The absence of honest debate will facilitate this undemocratic legislation and pave the way for many unanticipated distortions in the political process.

Parliament has an inalienable right to pass any legislation, including crazy ones. There may be some redemption if MPs are at least allowed the liberty of a conscience vote. If only Tiwari’s Bill was law…

Sunday Pioneer, March 7, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Shakespeare Baboo (March 6, 2010)

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution Of Culture And Identity
By Pavan K. Varma/Allen Lane/Penguin | 275 pages | Rs 499

Pavan Varma’s inveighing against a baleful colonial influence is rooted in the Hindi sphere’s fragile ego

By Swapan Dasgupta

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution Of Culture And Identity

The cover of Pavan Varma’s charmingly polemical book is intended to be a photographic caricature. It portrays a man wearing a white silk kurta and red-bordered dhoti over a pair of black argyle socks and Oxford shoes. The apparent incongruity between the attire and the footwear encapsulates the book’s central thesis: Indian identity has been distorted and made ridiculous by colonialism.

It’s an old argument. From Franz Fanon to Edward Said and Ashis Nandy, and from Gandhi to Golwalkar, scholarship and politics has often damned the imperial inheritance as a hideous perversion that affected both the coloniser and the colonised.

For Varma, the colonial inheritance remains a curse. An obsessive preoccupation with the English language and western sensibilities has marginalised indigenous culture, warped intellectual development, sullied art and aesthetics, and transformed India into a nation of philistines. India is unworthy of a leadership role because the national psyche has been built on “borrowed plumes and transplanted paraphernalia”.

For 300 years, writes Varma with eloquence, “an entire nation and its people became the object of an external curiosity, brown fish swimming around in a bowl held in white hands”. He peppers this imagery with anecdotal evidence of passengers on the Shatabdi choosing to speak in indifferent English, the non-availability of Ghalib’s poetry in Delhi bookshops and the steady erosion in the popularity of Indian classical music.

Predictably, it all began with Macaulay. But what Varma finds most galling is that Macaulay’s project was accepted and internalised by Indians. Those selected by him for inquisition and denunciation include Raja Rammohan Roy, writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the Bengal School artists and, naturally, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Varma doesn’t admit of an ability to retain identity while taking from the West. Examples of India’s abject yielding is drawn from Delhi.

The Raja is berated for freezing his deep knowledge of Hindu philosophy in favour of endorsing Britain’s ‘civilising mission’. Niradbabu is debunked as “the most flamboyantly learned mimic of an alien civilisation”. “None of his books,” Varma writes with vicious inaccuracy, “sold more than 5,000 copies...despondent showing for a man who became the biggest apologist of British rule.” The Bengal School is critiqued for being a reaction to western sensibilities, rejecting anything that deviated from a depiction of India’s glorified past and “caricaturing their potential”. Nehru gets short shrift for speaking in English at the stroke of the midnight hour and imposing the questionable modernism of Le Corbusier on an unsuspecting Punjab.

Varma’s critique of the contrived modernism of Nehruvian aesthetics is compelling and should warn against the unilateral imposition of a leader’s personal preferences. On the two Bengali stalwarts, he tends to be more doctrinaire than historical. Like many “post-colonial” intellectuals, Varma underplays the quantum of bhadralok acceptance of British rule. This was partly due to its being an improvement over anarchy. Bengalis were also excited by the potentialities of new knowledge. The East-West encounter did not lead to natives forsaking their own: it witnessed a spectacular flowering of Bengali literature. Rammohan and Niradbabu personified Bengal’s breakout from provincialism.

Varma doesn’t admit this ability to retain self-respect and identity while imbibing from the West. His anecdotal evidence is drawn primarily from Delhi, a city yet to develop roots and where the self-esteem of many Hindi speakers is fragile. In Calcutta Club they speak Bengali, dhoti is encouraged, and a good steak served. In Madras Club, ladies elegantly sipping whisky are attired in kanjeevarams; its ambience one of rootedness. The problem of identity and the triumph of philistinism is mostly a problem of the Hindi sphere. These can be rationalised by history and politics: Hindi’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis Urdu and Persian; the relative lateness of its exposure to the ‘civilising mission’; the many outlanders in the political class.

False consciousness isn’t a pan-Indian problem. And does it matter that Lord Romsey mispronounces ‘Ahluwalia’ and we make a dog’s breakfast of Lord Cholmondley. For many decades I have tried to tell north Indians that my surname is Dasgupta and my first name isn’t Swapandas. One day I may even succeed.

Outlook, March 15, 2010

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Sensitive blackmail (March 5, 2010)

In the past decade, India’s threshold of tolerance has dipped

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, a newspaper in Delhi published a telling cartoon that drew many a snigger: a figure fully veiled in black with the simple caption: “Qatar Mata by M.F. Husain”.

The apparent absurdity of India’s most famous artist relinquishing his Indian nationality for the citizenship of Qatar, a place where he claims “no one controls my freedom of expression”, has disappointed many of his ardent supporters who had faithfully backed him against militant and litigious groups. In turning his back on “my motherland” because “India doesn’t need me” and “no one came forward to speak for me”, Husain has handed out an unqualified victory to those who feel that free speech and expression cannot include the right to offend. That Husain abandoned India for an Emirate that is devoutly Islamic, conservative and doesn’t remotely qualify as a democracy has only compounded the problem. Lacking political perspicacity, Husain has unwittingly added a new adversary to his list of tormentors: Indian nationalism. The price of Husain’s paintings will not fall because of this new twist to the controversy, but it is possible that the next attack on an exhibition of his paintings in India will be greeted with indifference, not outrage.

The upholders of intolerant democracy have already drawn their own perverse conclusions from the successful hounding of Husain. Last Monday, there were violent demonstrations by militant Muslims in Karnataka against the publication of an article in a local newspaper attacking the veil by the exiled Bangladeshi author, Taslima Nasreen. The article, an unauthorized Kannada translation of an article that had been first published in the Outlook magazine three years ago, was subsequently deemed by the Karnataka government to be “provocative” and the newspaper regretted its publication. Like the Left Front government, which bundled Taslima out of Calcutta after an outbreak of sectarian hooliganism, Karnataka’s Bharatiya Janata Party government pursued the line of least resistance. It bought peace by capitulating to the intolerant.

From a media perspective, there was nothing wilfully provocative in a publication reprinting Taslima’s critique of the burqa. In the past few months, the issue has been debated globally in the context of the French ban on outward religious symbols, including the burqa. Earlier, Britain was drawn into controversy following the insistence of the then home secretary, Jack Straw, that the burqa should be discarded by those who wished to meet him at his constituency surgery. Last month, the Election Commission in India informed the Supreme Court that the burqa was a “religious custom” and not an integral part of Islam and, as such, Muslim women must have their faces photographed if they wanted to enrol as voters.

From a purely journalistic perspective, Kannada Prabha wasn’t being wilfully provocative in proffering Taslima’s feminist critique of Islamic theology to its readers. The issue was topical. The only lapse was a copyright violation, an offence that doesn’t warrant a riotous mob.

The issue, it would seem, wasn’t what Taslima actually wrote or whether she erred in her understanding of Islamic theology. In a television programme recently, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen member of parliament for Hyderabad, Asaduddin Owaisi, went apoplectic over Taslima’s “blasphemy” and questioned her very right to be in India. Like the occasion when the MIM proudly disrupted a public meeting in Hyderabad where Taslima was present and even tried to assault her, the idea was to inform the government that any accommodation on her asylum application would invite Muslim fury.

There is an eerie similarity between the threats to and disruption of exhibitions of Husain’s paintings and the fury directed at Taslima. It didn’t require the exhibition of Husain’s so-called “obscene” and “offensive” paintings for the religious vigilantes to take offence; even his other paintings have been rendered objectionable. Nor did it require Taslima to start a fresh controversy. I am informed that even her non-proscribed books weren’t on offer in this year’s Calcutta Book Fair. The messages were common: neither Husain nor Taslima were acceptable in any form.

Salman Rushdie suffered a similar plight even after his Satanic Verses was peremptorily banned by Rajiv Gandhi’s government, a decision that triggered a chain of events that led to Ayatollah Khomeini’s murderous fatwa. He was denied a visa to visit India for nearly 12 years because the authorities feared that his mere presence would trigger violence.

Over the years, successive governments have fallen back on the plea that freedom of expression in India is not unfettered but circumscribed by concerns of morality and public order. In short, there is no automatic right to offend. India’s secularism, it has also been maintained, doesn’t imply indifference to faith but equal respect for all faiths. There is a corresponding, if somewhat over-simplistic belief, that the great religions are not in the business of offending non-believers.

In theory, there is nothing hideously objectionable to citizen’s rights being qualified by the realities of India. Even in the West, where personal freedoms tend to be more uninhibited, there have been concerns over paedophile literature and hate speeches. The Pope has made it his business to protest against a proposed Equality Act in Britain that makes homosexuality a legitimate lifestyle choice. A few years ago, the revisionist ‘historian’, David Irving, was jailed in Austria for his denial of the Holocaust. At present, a prominent Dutch politician is being prosecuted for allegedly making hate speeches against Islam.

Despite the periodic indignation over assaults on common decencies, it is worth stressing that the intellectual climate in the West is relatively unfettered. Though ‘moderate’ and ‘middle of the road’ views are often given top billing, there is enough space to accommodate both dissent and offence. Martin Rowson, a cartoonist for The Guardian, was recently in India lecturing on British humour. His audiences were quite stunned by the British success in ensuring that almost nothing remained sacred. This, it was generally agreed, would be completely unacceptable in India.

Indian society is innately reverential and is unduly cautious in challenging conventional wisdom. Yet 60 years of a democratic Constitution should have witnessed a steady expansion in the lakshman rekha of tolerance, and more so because the Hindu ethos is inherently accommodating and non-doctrinaire. The founding fathers who agreed on separate civil codes believed that an initial confidence-building gesture to India’s largest minority would make them more responsive to liberal and secular principles.

Precisely the opposite has happened. The growth of political Islam from the 1970s has seen a regression in Muslim social attitudes and the post-9/11 world has contributed to a back-to-basics radicalism. The attempt by liberals to accommodate minority concerns while simultaneously promoting Hindu liberalism didn’t yield the necessary results. Minority cussedness prompted a fierce Hindu political backlash that, in turn, hardened Muslim attitudes even further. The opening up of the economy and the rise in prosperity did help shift the focus from the overweening preoccupation with sectarian concerns, the defining hallmark of the 1990s, but there was no automatic drift to a more open society. In the past decade, the threshold of tolerance in India has been lowered considerably — thanks in no small degree to the takeover of the internet by competitive extremists. ‘Sensitivity to faith’ has come to mean accommodation of organized blackmail.

The successful anti-Husain and anti-Taslima protests have to be seen in the context of a progressive shrinking of the enlightened public space. India imagined it would be a world player on the strength of its ‘soft power’. Today, that power is being steadily undermined by the clash of rival ghettos. The nonsense has gone on far too long and has touched dangerous heights. It’s time the country extends democratic rights to those who offend fragile sensitivities.

The Telegraph, March 5, 2010